September 30, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions

Dorothy Dehner. New City. 1953. Watercolor and ink on paper. The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation for the Visual Arts. © 2010 Dorothy Dehner Foundation for the Visual Arts

Sometimes you can palpably feel excitement building for an artist. It might be a rising star from Los Angeles who works in drawing and video, or a Brooklyn-based painter featured in Greater New York 2010 at MoMA PS1 and about to break through. It is less often a woman artist of the New York School, whose presence in MoMA’s collection has heretofore consisted of one drawing, two prints, and a small tabletop sculpture, and who has been dead for sixteen years.

Which is why I think it’s wonderful that curators across several MoMA departments are making important new acquisitions of works by Dorothy Dehner, a too-often under-recognized draftswoman, printmaker, and sculptor. When the teams behind the upcoming exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York began mining the vaults for works to accompany the Rothkos and Pollocks, they were struck by this artist’s singular take on the universal symbols that underlie individual expression.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Dorothy Dehner (1901–1994) trained as a dancer and an actress, but decided to become a visual artist after seeing works by Matisse and Picasso on a 1925 trip to Europe. In New York, she studied painting and drawing at the Art Students League, and met and married artist David Smith. Though Dehner’s production took a backseat during their marriage, she gained recognition in the years leading up to their 1952 divorce; her first solo efforts were a 1948 show of drawings and gouaches at Skidmore College, and a 1952 exhibition of watercolors at the Rose Fried Gallery. Dehner developed her sculptural practice throughout the 1950s and 1960s, working in bronze with the lost-wax method, and eventually turned to wood in the 1970s. She continued to make work until her death in 1994.

Dehner is one of ten artists featured in Rock Paper Scissors, a second-floor installation organized by Jodi Hauptman, Curator, Department of Drawings, and Sarah Suzuki, The Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr., Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books, on view until February 28, 2011. As Suzuki explained in a September 16 blog post, the show features “sculpture and works on paper by artists who moved in Abstract Expressionist circles, but many of whom weren’t engaged with the large-scale gestural painting the movement is best known for.” In addition to the four collection works mentioned above, this presentation of Dehner includes two new acquisitions—Encounter (1969), a sculptural group of six totemic figures in bronze, and the watercolor-and-ink composition New City (1953)—as well as eight engravings being proposed for acquisition.

As a member of the Drawings Department, I am particularly delighted by the addition of New City to our collection. With its soft spreads of rose and violet watercolor underlying a network of black ink skeins, the work is at once organic and geometric, natural and urban—a perfect illustration of Dehner’s desire to “establish through my medium some sort of pattern and order for myself out of a larger universal pattern.” Its sense of poetry recalls the fantastic watercolors of German Expressionists Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger, and its formal qualities anticipate the linear explorations of contemporary practitioners like Julie Mehretu. Considered in the context of Dehner’s contemporaries, a work like this complicates what we understand to be the combined effect of “abstract” and “expressionist.” In Dehner’s uniquely intimate project, grand themes are handled with gorgeous subtlety.